Support for independence is growing.
The protests that greeted Boris Johnson’s visit to Orkney should come as no surprise. He may have been bearing news of extra investment, but it has been 70 years since the island last elected a Conservative MP.
One person who was more than happy for him to visit was Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who tweeted: “One of the key arguments for independence is the ability of Scotland to take our own decisions, rather than having our future decided by politicians we didn’t vote for, taking us down a path we haven’t chosen. His presence highlights that.”
In some respects, it is re-assuring that Scottish politics has returned to the usual constitutional wrangling. The unity of purpose we saw over recent months was a response to COVID and as the death rate has fallen, we are discovering that, at least in party-political terms, the ‘new normal’ looks a lot like the old normal.
There are some big differences though. For one, the COVID crisis appears to have coincided with an increased support for independence. The last three polls have shown leads for Yes, while the SNP is scoring some of its highest polling and biggest leads to date.
Fairly or not, there is perceived to be a huge gulf in how the Scottish Government has handled the pandemic when compared to Johnson and his colleagues. One poll found that 82% of Scots think that the Scottish Government has handled the crisis well, while only one third say the same about Johnson.
Part of the problem is that there has never been any great love for Johnson north of the border. Upon entering Downing Street, one poll gave him a net popularity rating of -45% among Scots.
But it is obvious that the Union is a priority for Johnson. One of the first things he did as PM was creating the title of ‘Minister for the Union’, a position that he appointed himself to.
He has described the nations of the United Kingdom as the ‘awesome foursome’ but the political differences could not be starker. Last December the Tories swept up former Labour heartlands across England and Wales, but in Scotland they lost 65,000 votes and over half of their MPs.
Johnson followed-up the disappointing results by announcing plans to “love-bomb” Scotland and make the union his “top-priority.” Obviously the ‘bomb’ was disarmed by COVID, but in that time the polling for his Scottish colleagues has continued to get worse, both in polls for Westminster and Holyrood.
Johnson’s inability to win-over Scotland is not the only problem for the Scottish Conservatives. Last year saw the resignation of their popular leader, Ruth Davidson. She was replaced by her former Deputy, Jackson Carlaw, who, thus far, has failed to set the heather alight.
It may be that the COVID-crisis has done little to strengthen the economic case for independence, but its handling has undoubtedly helped to build the political one.
During his visit today Johnson claimed 900,000 jobs have been saved by the ‘sheer might of the Union.’ This is a number we are likely to hear a lot more in the months ahead, but will it be enough to overcome the political differences that have been exacerbated by Brexit and COVID?
The biggest crunch will come next May, when Scotland votes in what will arguably be its most important election to date. All polling is showing that the election of a pro-independence majority of MSPs is not just a possibility, it is highly likely. Even if the SNP does not win a majority of seats on its own, the odds of it doing so in conjunction with the pro-independence Scottish Green Party are looking very good.
Of course, Scotland has a pro-independence majority in parliament now and that has not been enough to force another vote on independence. So why would Johnson be compelled to give-way in future?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that polls suggest a majority of Scots have been happy to allow Brexit to happen before another independence vote. This has helped Johnson to argue that there is no demand and that it is crucial to ‘get Brexit done’ first etc. However, the same polls that showed a majority opposed a 2020 referendum also showed that most would support a vote in the next five years.
A plurality of Scots believe that the changes since 2014 justify another referendum, and, perhaps more importantly 62% believe that it should be the Scottish Parliament that has the power to call such a vote, rather than Westminster. It is definitely not in Johnson’s interest for the UK to be seen as a hostage-situation, and the more that Scottish independence and democracy become synonymous the more pressure there will be on him to give way.
We are living in unpredictable times, and there is a lot that can happen between now and next May’s election. The months ahead will make clear the scale of the economic hit from COVID and Brexit. Meanwhile, the Alex Salmond legal saga still has a lot of mileage. We do not know how these things will play out.
However, the early evidence of his Premiership suggests that Johnson does not do particularly well under pressure, and that he has yet to build any connection with the Scots electorate. Looking forward, it certainly does not help the Union when the person most associated with it is as deeply unpopular as Johnson. It could be that all of that is about to change and that this visit is the start of a renaissance of Scottish Toryism, but I wouldn’t bet the Union on it.
Andrew Smith is a Glasgow-based political campaigner. He works for a human rights organisation and tweets here
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